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Blade Runner 2049

Posted October 7, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

Blade Runner is perhaps the greatest unfinished movie of our time. That might sound like a strange statement to make, considering that it was released and seen and adored by millions of people. But was it ever really finished? Think about it.

The Blade Runner released in 1982 was actually the third version of the film, following the workprint shown to preview audiences in Dallas and Denver, and another workprint shown to preview audiences in San Diego. These were followed by the international release and of course the version for TV broadcast. Then came the Director’s Cut in 1992 (not to be confused with the “10th Anniversary Edition”, actually the repackaged international release) and the “Final Cut” in 2007.

Seven different versions, all with different scenes (and voice-over narrations) added and deleted. Which one is the true definitive cut? That question has been subject to so much blazing debate over so many years and still nobody has a definitive answer. And of course, that isn’t even getting started on the famously ambiguous ending. It’s almost like a geek rite of passage to watch the film, carefully looking for clues, researching how the clues differ from one version to another, trying to answer the question of whether or not Deckard is a Replicant. Hell, debating that subject is half the fun of watching the film.

As such, a sequel seemed like an iffy prospect, even if it hadn’t come out over 30 years after the original. Awesome as it may sound to revisit that world, the beginning of one chapter implies the closing of another. And I don’t think we really needed or wanted any definitive answers to a film so deliberately and beautifully open-ended.

Mercifully, Blade Runner 2049 works perfectly fine as a standalone movie and as a sequel. On the off chance that somebody somehow walked into this without ever having seen the first movie, they’ll be able to appreciate this just fine, but not as much as those who know the first movie top-to-bottom. Even better, while the sequel quite clearly takes place in the same universe and continuity, enough time has passed in-universe that the sequel has the room to tell its own story without any regard to which cut you think is the definitive one. And perhaps most importantly, while Harrison Ford does reprise his iconic role as Rick Deckard, the plot would unfold in exactly the same way whether he’s a human or a Replicant and the question is barely even broached, much less answered.

While Ridley Scott stayed on as an exec producer, he was gracious enough to hand the reins off to someone else. (Fans of the Alien franchise will surely appreciate what a crucial step this was.) Likewise, while original Blade Runner co-writer Hampton Fancher devised the story and had a hand in writing the screenplay, the script was handed off to Michael Green. The latter is something of a wild card, with a hand in projects ranging from Green Lantern to Logan, from “American Gods” to Alien: Covenant. And directing all of this is Denis Villeneuve, turning in his seventh goddamn feature in eight years. Villeneuve seemed unnaturally perfect for the job, given his proclivity for dark and brooding crime drama (PrisonersSicario, etc.) and his recent knack for visually stunning and deeply intellectual sci-fi (Arrival).

(Side note: Did I mention that Villeneuve has directed seven feature films in the past eight years? Because I think that bears repeating. Seven feature films in eight years. Who knew that was even possible?!)

The stakes for this one were incredibly high, and the critical reception was sterling before the film had even been released. Luckily for everyone involved, this did indeed turn out to be a really good movie.

A text crawl at the opening helpfully refreshes us on the events of the previous film while getting us up to speed on what happened in the interrim. Long story short, the death of Eldon Tyrell — compounded by the Replicant ban for fear of synthetic humans going rogue and killing everyone — led to the bankruptcy of the Tyrell Corporation. In turn, this led to a shortage of cheap labor which led to the atrophy of the off-world colonies.

Enter Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a genius scientist who was able to revitalize agriculture on the off-world colonies. He then purchased what was left of the Tyrell Corporation to revamp the manufacture of Replicants, making them more reliable and obedient. However, we still have older models of Replicants out there who’ve somehow been able to stay off the radar for all these years. Thus we still have the Blade Runners.

Oh, and I should also mention The Blackout. Later in the movie, we learn that some freak incident took down power throughout the city and wiped out virtually every form of electronic data storage. It’s basically a plot device so that certain events in the last movie and in subsequent years could be kept secret until the appropriate time.

Anyway, our protagonist for this movie is “K”, a Blade Runner in the LAPD. In case the name wasn’t enough to tip you off, there’s no mystery this time about whether or not our protagonist is a Replicant — we’re very explicitly told in the first few minutes that he is absolutely a Replicant. And suddenly, casting Ryan Gosling for the role makes a lot more sense. Gosling’s greatest strength and biggest drawback as an actor has always been that “uncanny valley” sort of screen persona, like he’s too boringly perfect to be human. Not only is he a natural choice for the role, but making the character a Replicant helps us suspend disbelief when our hero does something no human should be capable of. And of course it opens up a lot of the philosophical questions we’d expect from the franchise, but for now, let’s get back to the premise.

The catalyst is Sapper Morton, an older Replicant played by Dave Bautista. After Morton is… *ahem* “retired”, K finds a crate full of bones that Morton buried. Analysis of these remains shows that the skeleton belonged to a woman who died in childbirth about thirty years ago. And here’s the kicker: This woman was a Replicant.

To the Wallace Corporation (that’s the new Tyrell Corporation, if you’re keeping track), this discovery means a new and cheaper means of producing Replicants. To the Replicants themselves, this means one more crucial reason why they are humans in all but name and social equality. And to the LAPD, this is an impossibility that has to be covered up before the status quo is destroyed and war breaks out between humans and Replicants.

So everyone is after this Replicant child for their own reasons. Of course, there’s a good chance that you’ve already guessed by now who the parents are, and the movie wastes virtually no time in confirming the obvious guess. There’s also an obvious guess as to who this child is, but the film takes a lot longer in entertaining that possibility and the big reveal comes with a welcome curveball.

Anyway, the main thrust of the plot is K’s search for this child, partly as a pawn in everyone else’s schemes and partly for his own reasons. Things get even further complicated when K’s memories start acting up. You’ll recall that K is a Replicant, so any of his memories before adulthood are merely fictional implants. But because this is the Blade Runner universe, there’s a chance that at least some of his memories may have been adapted from actual memories lived out through someone else.

All of this leads to a fascinating philosophical crisis when some of K’s memories yield vital clues in unexpected ways. Could it be that his memories are real and he actually did some of these things? Who (if anyone) made these memories, who (if anyone) lived them out, who (if anyone) put them in K’s head, and (if so) why? These are all such fascinating questions that I’m kind of sad the movie provided such concrete answers for all of them. Though I guess the plot would kinda fall apart without those answers, so whatever.

Right off the bat, I was fascinated by the look of the movie. It’s Grandmaster Roger Deakins on the camera, so of course every frame is utterly immaculate. But the production design was something else. It’s not an easy thing to describe in words, how the tech of Blade Runner and its sequel progressed in a way that was analogous to the tech of 1982 and 2017. Everything’s sleeker and more streamlined, but it all very clearly takes place in the same world. It’s really quite remarkable.

Kudos are also due to Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, both of whom created a moody and atmospheric score of electronic music, worthy of standing next to the iconic work by Vangelis in the original film. Nicely done.

Then we have the supporting cast. Ana de Armas is my personal favorite of the bunch, here playing K’s girlfriend. The kicker is that Joi is actually an artificially intelligent hologram, specially designed and advertised to be a perfect female companion. So she’s basically a pleasure-model Replicant, but even less real. We’re never allowed to forget for even an instant that Joi is a mass-produced construct who isn’t even physically there, but de Armas’ performance makes it perfectly clear that Joi’s love for K is somehow no less real. The two of them even have sex through a surrogate (a Replicant prostitute played by Mackenzie Davis, and goddamn is it always such a pleasure to see her onscreen), and the concept is actually done way better here than it was in Her.

Oh, and getting back to the visuals for a moment: The effects in bringing Joi to the screen are positively kickass. It’s astounding how much effort and creativity went into showing de Arma as an immaterial being made of pure light. Similarly, a whole ton of praise is due to the VFX work for Carla Juri’s character, whom we meet while she’s creating memories for Replicants.

Another prominent supporting actress is Sylvia Hoecks in the role of Luv. She’s basically the muscle for Wallace — and a Replicant, of course — out to track down and/or kill people so her boss doesn’t have to. Hoecks is more than sufficiently beautiful, imposing, and creepy-as-fuck to sell the character. Compare that to Leto, who plays our main villain by chewing scenery while also somehow looking stoned out of his mind at the same time. It makes for an interesting contrast between the two characters, I’ll grant them that.

Dave Bautista only appears for a brief period of time, but it’s more than enough to show that he can do way more as an actor than just beat people up. Barkhad Abdi also shows up in a cameo role, and there’s another actor who deserves way more work. Can we please get him a role in an upcoming Star Wars movie or something?

Speaking of which, Harrison Ford. Put simply, he’s Harrison Ford in this picture. He came to this movie to punch faces and give fucks, and he’s all out of fucks to give. He’s a grumpy old man and bless him for it. Likewise, Robin Wright appears in the thankless role of K’s police lieutenant, which means that she really doesn’t have to do much except to show up and be the living legend that she is.

Oh, and Ford isn’t the only actor from the original film to put in an appearance. I won’t go into details, but the sequel is loaded with wonderful callbacks to the first movie, and a couple of favorite characters make delightful cameo appearances. One of them even uses the CGI youthing technology that’s so in vogue right now, and I’ve never seen it done so perfectly before.

So, nitpicks? Well, at two hours and 45 minutes, there’s no denying that this movie is quite long in the tooth. There are a lot of wonderful scenes and introspective moments that develop the characters and build the world of this franchise, but that comes at the expense of the “find the Replicant child” plot grinding to a dead halt for minutes at a time. Additionally, the denouement is admittedly pretty weak, though I actually kinda like how the climactic fight was a cleverly small and intimate affair despite the global stakes.

But for me, the big overarching problem is the lack of subtlety. While the film is certainly a work of intelligent sci-fi, it’s frustrating how it raises so many existential and ethical questions only to wrap them all up in a tidy little bow. A huge part of what made the first movie such an enduring classic was in the subtle way it raised questions so compelling that they kept fans coming back again and again, writing and refining brilliant philosophical theses in search of a decent answer. By contrast, there’s nothing in this sequel on par with the question of Deckard’s natural-born status, and that’s a deep disappointment.

That said, while Blade Runner 2049 may resolve everything a little too neatly, it does absolutely nothing to ruin or change the original film in all its brilliance. And the sequel itself is a great time, with a solid cast delivering compelling characters and jaw-dropping production design shot beautifully. This isn’t the first time we’ve gotten a sequel to a movie that didn’t need a sequel, but we’ve sure seen cases that were a hell of a lot worse than this.

Give it a watch and have fun picking through it for yourself.

American Made

Posted October 7, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

I’m calling it the “Dirty Stinking Rich” subgenre.

In the wake of the Iraq War, the Great Recession, and a growing distaste for how the wealthy and powerful keep getting away with fucking us over, we’ve had a lot of “Dirty Stinking Rich” movies. I’m specifically referring to films that depict the rise (and fall) of sleazy protagonists who get to be obscenely wealthy through illegal and/or unethical means. More specifically, these are films made to be deliberately crude and/or provocative, serving as a darkly comical satire of the immoral One Percent and how the American Dream has become a tasteless joke. Quite often, they’re (loosely) based on a true story. Perhaps most importantly, there has to be at least one montage of the protagonists pressed against gorgeous women, high on mass amounts of drugs and alcohol, partying in opulent cars and houses, etc., so that we can vicariously live through them even as we hate their guts.

The Wolf of Wall Street is easily the most definitive example. But we’ve also got Pain and Gain, War Dogs, and The Big Short as other notable entries. And here’s another one.

American Made is loosely based on a true story, set against the backdrop of 1979 and the early ’80s. To set the stage, this is when the Soviets were supporting insurgencies in Central America. This naturally caught the interest of the States up north, prompting a proxy war between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. Problem: The notion of sending troops down there sounded uncomfortably similar to the Vietnam fiasco, and Congress was dead-set against another war. Thusly, the CIA was tasked with figuring out how to keep the Commies off our doorstep without anyone knowing about it. Enter Barry Seal.

It’s not entirely clear when TWA pilot Barry Seal started working with the CIA (Go figure, right?), but in the movie, he’s caught smuggling contraband cigars out of Cuba. So he’s more or less blackmailed into quitting his job with the CIA and flying with an independent shell company to take recon photos of insurgents in Central America. Incidentally, this puts him in direct contact with the nascent Manuel Noriega.

Long story short (too late!), a young up-and-coming businessman named Pablo Escobar catches wind of Seal’s operations and, uh… *ahem* convinces him to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.A. And things get crazier from there.

As the plot unfolds, Seal is flying around drugs, guns, top-secret intel, you name it. For a huge stretch of time, he’s even flying huge groups of Contra soldiers up to the States for training. And all the while, he’s simultaneously taking money from the CIA, the White House, and all the most dangerous drug lords in the Western Hemisphere. He seriously ends up with more money than he can spend, with cash literally bursting out of his walls.

This naturally catches the attention of law enforcement, who has no idea about all the covert stuff Seal is doing for his nation (and others). Which means that he has to fend off the DEA, the FBI, ATF, FAA, DMV, FCC and every other acronym out there. Not to mention the CIA and Seal’s drug lord friends, any one of which could hang him out to dry at any time for any reason.

It’s a life story so crazy, only Tom Cruise could star in it.

This is seriously a unique brand of crazy that fits perfectly into Cruise’s wheelhouse. Too perfectly, in fact. I don’t know if or when we’re ever going to see Cruise dissolve into a role again, such that we can focus on the character instead of the nutjob with one of the most bankable faces in modern cinema, but that day is not today. He’s entertaining, to be sure — a whole lot of fun to watch. But the simple fact is that we’re watching yet another Tom Cruise vehicle and not a Tom Cruise performance. Still, he at least holds the film together, which is more than I can say for the rest of the cast.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Seal’s contact with the CIA, and I’m sorry to say that he was pitifully miscast. I mean, I get the idea of casting someone inconspicuous as the covert operative, but the face of the CIA should be someone who could potentially pose a serious threat if the occasion called for it. There’s an edge to this job that Gleeson — for all his talent and charm — simply doesn’t have.

A similar case is Seal’s wife, played by Sarah Wright as our latest winner of the “Relatively Unknown Beautiful Actress Gets to Play a Female Lead Opposite Tom Cruise” sweepstakes. I love that this is a thing and it’s great that Cruise insists on putting so much effort into finding strong female talent instead of casting the 20-something du jour to play his romantic lead. Unfortunately, on the scale of Cruise’s other recent female costars, Wright is a lot closer to Annabelle Wallis than Rebecca Ferguson. While Wright certainly looks the part, she doesn’t have the material or the talent to hold the screen against Cruise. She only registers as a placeholder when the potential was there for so much more.

We’ve also got Caleb Landry Jones playing firmly within type as the scumbag brother-in-law who threatens to ruin everything, and Jesse Plemons as the local sheriff who does just short of fuck-all. And nobody else in the supporting cast is even worth a mention. For better or worse, this is all Tom Cruise’s show. Well, him and Doug Liman.

It’s little wonder that Liman and Cruise work well together (see: Edge of Tomorrow. No, seriously, watch it.) But of course Liman is probably still best known for his work on the Jason Bourne series and its trademark use of handheld photography. And sadly, it’s a little shaky here (so to speak). For every gorgeous panoramic shot of some Central American city, there’s a shot in which the actors are barely visible in the frame. Even so, Liman deserves a ton of credit for helping us to straighten out the complicated geopolitical events and Seal’s convoluted trafficking schemes. That is seriously no mean feat.

But all of this comes secondary to my single biggest gripe with this film, and it’s a problem sadly too common with other “Dirty Stinking Rich” movies: Stakes and consequences. Yes, the movie focuses tightly on our main character, with the massive amounts of money and the life-or-death stakes he faces through every second of every day. But sadly, the movie keeps such a heavy focus on its main character that the greater stakes and consequences for the world at large are completely overlooked.

Barry talks about how he helped build the largest drug cartel in the hemisphere, but he talks about it in the context of “Isn’t it a crazy story?”, and never in the context of “How many lives did I destroy?” In fact, never once does anybody hold him responsible for all the innocent people who lost their lives and their livelihoods as a direct result of the wars he perpetuated and the drugs he smuggled in. So many law enforcement agencies are after Seal, but there’s no voice given to precisely why he may need to be stopped. It’s presented as comical how Barry has more cash than he can possibly hope to hide or smuggle, and it’s never mentioned even once that every last dollar bill is soaked in blood.

As presented in the film, Barry is simply a man who gets in over his head because he never says no. Because he literally can’t say no. He spends so much time trying to stay one step ahead and enjoy his life while he can that there’s really no time to even dwell on his conscience. Yes, that makes for a fast-paced movie that’s great fun to sit through, but it doesn’t make for a particularly insightful or relevant movie. The best we get is a shot of Nancy Reagan telling us “Just Say No” juxtaposed with Americans backing Contras with drug money. Amusing and darkly ironic, but that’s not exactly going for the jugular.

I want to be clear that American Made is a perfectly enjoyable film. It’s funny, it’s fast-paced, the action is good, and Tom Cruise is a blast to watch. But it could have been so much more. There was definitely room here for a stronger supporting cast and a deeper examination of the story, with more intelligent insights regarding the consequences of Seal’s actions and how this story is relevant today.

As it is, this is an ideal movie for early October: Not quite fun enough to be a summer blockbuster and not quite smart enough to be an awards contender.